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"Call Me Jane. PLEASE!" Creating Working Environments That Enhance Retention and Productivity

“Human Capital.” “Human Assets.” “Skills.” “Human Resources.” The terms “people” and even “employees” are seemingly no longer in vogue; organizational experts utilize these new labels instead. Is there a link between “dehumanizing the workforce” and turnover, morale and productivity?

Nationwide unemployment rates are currently hovering in the 5% range with many cities much lower. In response to the shortage, salary ranges and benefits have risen. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that young entrants will change jobs nine times before the age of 32. It is further estimated that the cost of replacing an exempt employee is worth one to two times her salary and benefits and that a new hire can only accomplish 60% as much in the first three months of employment. Merely raising salaries no longer solves all of the problems associated with today’s employment numbers. The following are five Back to Basic Suggestions to assist your organization in retention and productivity:

1.  Respect Those You Work With

Co-workers who feel personally valued and safe, both physically and psychologically, are more likely to work for your organization and become productive members of your team.

Our most basic instinct is, of course, survival. Many underestimate the significance of the fear of violence on the workforce; however, the numbers indicate that at least 14% of the workforce feels that their organizations are “well below” or “below expectations” in creating a job environment in which they feel free from “fear, intimidation and harassment.” These numbers directly correlate to those people who are lower in productivity and are more likely to leave their positions voluntarily.1 Interestingly, however, only 68% of organizations had written policies addressing workplace violence as of 1999, according to one SHRM survey.2

Fear of harassment similarly impacts your co-workers. A Working Woman magazine study found that sexual harassment costs the typical Fortune 500 company $6.7 million a year in increased absenteeism, employee turnover, low morale, and low productivity. With the proper policies, training, and effort, these costly concerns could be eradicated from your organization.

Respecting your team on a deeper level is also important. Your workers are individuals, not merely “assets.” Getting to know them and what motivates them individually is imperative to retention. Meeting their individual needs goes beyond creating a safe environment: work becomes a place where they feel part of a team – in successes and losses. Value their cultural and personality differences. Learn from them. Eradicate phrases such as “she acts like she just got off the boat,” “we just need to get some fresh blood in here,” and “I don’t want you to have to slave over this project.” 

2.  Foster Open Communication

A workforce that feels comfortable communicating with management is a more stable and productive group. In fact, a study conducted by Stephen Erbschloe at the University of Denver found that poor communication and political infighting were the top two factors that slowed change at 46 companies setting up Internet businesses. “Communication” however, does not merely mean allowing your employees access to management. It includes listening, really listening. Without exception, every successful organization recognizes the importance of listening and reacting to customer complaints and suggestions, and believe it or not, your employees are customers of your organizational human resources. Focus on competing for these “customers” not only in terms of recruitment but also in the area of retention.

Ask your co-workers open-ended questions such as “how do you feel about ...?” “How would you do this differently ...?” “What concerns do you have about ...?” Respond by reflecting the team member’s thought back to ensure your understanding. Then let the employee know what you plan to do with their comment. Build an atmosphere of trust and make every effort to hear what your internal customers are telling you. 

3.  Remain flexible 

Policies and fair treatment are imperative to lessen legal exposure. However, the flexibility of these policies is in your hands. Not every employee is the same. And the workforce demographics bear out that the standard policies of yesterday are not going to be sufficient for your organization today. For instance, in 1975, only 47% of the women in the workforce had children. As of 1999, that number had risen to 72%. By 2008, the Asian, Hispanic and “other” labor forces are projected to increase in population at a faster rate than other racial groups, and the black labor force is expected to grow by 20%, twice as fast as the 10 percent growth rate for the white labor force.3  

Numerous studies have indicated that a flexible environment enhances employee loyalty and productivity. We have all heard the stories of the “High Tech” culture where employees come and go as they want, wear what they want, and basically work on whatever they want. That is not practical for the majority of organizations in our nation. Learning from them, however, can be helpful. More flexible working hours, less rigid oversight of employees, the institution of team-based management, a more casual style of dress, friendliness, and informal company sponsored events can all go a long way in developing an atmosphere of trust and respect. A friendly atmosphere where employees’ individual needs are met as opposed to a rigidly applied handbook is what keeps employees coming back day after day. 

4.  Keep track of Your Managers

Your manager’s conduct is all-important in the war to combat attrition and lack of productivity. If your co-workers feel trust and support from their direct line managers, they are much more willing to remain loyal to the organization. Each year, the Gallup Organization conducts employee surveys measuring the 12 indicators of a highly effective workforce. Included as one of the 12 indicators is a measurement of employees’ reports of whether their bosses care about them.

One organization in Texas discovered the hard way how costly it can be to allow a manager free reign in tormenting his employees. In GTE Southwest, Inc. v. Bruce, 998 S.W.2d (Tex 1999), a supervisor was accused of the following conduct, among other actions: 

  • Screaming at employees that if they do not “get things picked up” they would be fired;
  • Telling an employee that she would be sent to the unemployment line;
  • “Charging” at employees such that they were afraid that they would be hit;
  • Typing “quit” on a computer and telling an employee that is what she can do;
  • Requiring an employee to clean a spot off the carpet while “yelling” over her; and
  • Telling an employee to wear a post-it note that said: “don’t forget your paperwork.”

In Bruce, the Texas Supreme Court affirmed the jury’s award of $275,000 for intentional infliction of emotional distress and held that the employer, who had no knowledge of the supervisor’s conduct and did not otherwise authorize it, would be liable for those actions. 

Creating an open door policy is an absolutely vital step in keeping track of the actions of your managers. Without the valuable insight your employees can provide, there are often few if any checks on managers in the field. Listening and then acting on the information received from your employees is therefore imperative. Every complaint by employees should be taken seriously and met with either a formal or informal investigation. Value the input without retaliation. Follow-through on complaints by informing the complaining party what action was taken to solve his problem. Transfer, demote, retrain or terminate management that fails to respect the employees of your organization. Prompt reaction to managers’ transgressions will help foster the trust and commitment necessary to keep your valuable workforce. 

5.  Allow Your Workers to Grow 

In a recent study, employees were asked to choose between 6 factors in answering the following questions: “What factor most impacted your decision to take this job” and “What is the most important factor in your decision to stay with the organization in the future.”4 The majority responded that “opportunities for growth” were more important than wages paid, job security, work/life balance, benefits provided and reputation of the organization. Training and promotability are important to those choosing an organization and to the retention of current employees. 

Organizations are finding that employees are not simply looking for training to build on the skills they currently have; rather, they also want the opportunity to grow into different areas and explore new skills they may have never utilized before. For instance, managers are hungry for training in the areas of employment law, conflict resolution, communication, and cross-cultural diversity as well as business and technological courses. When looking at your training efforts, keep in mind that the management and employee levels desire growth both personally and professionally. They will stay with the organization that provides these opportunities and values them.
The success of your organization is, in large part, in the hands of your employees. Herbert (Herb) D. Kelleher, Chairman of the Board, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Southwest Airlines is emphatic that "Our esprit de corps is the core of our success. That's most difficult for a competitor to imitate. They can [buy] all the physical things. The thing you can't buy is dedication, devotion, loyalty--feeling you are participating in a cause or a crusade."5 Perhaps that is why Southwest has been consistently ranked in the top 4 of FORTUNE magazine’s annual list of 100 Best Companies to Work for in America since 1998. In addition, since 1973, Southwest Airlines has been profitable every year6 and experienced a turnover rate of only 9% (6% for upper management).7 

Similar to the Southwest Airlines philosophy, twenty-six of the 100 Best in Fortune call their workers something other than "employees" including “Associates,” “Team members,” “Co-workers,” and “Partners.” Completely missing were “human assets” and “capital.” Coincidence? You be the judge.

1 Id.
2 Society for Human Resource Management Workplace Violence Survey, 1999.
3 Bureau of Labor Statistics, DOL 1998-2008 Employment Projections, published November 1999
4 Id.
5 Fortune, “Can Anyone Replace Herb?” by Katrina Brooker, May 17, 2000, Vol. 141 No. 8 p. 186
6 AON Consulting United States @ Work 2000 Study.
7 Fortune, “Winning the War to Keep Top Talent” by Nicholas Stein, May 29, 2000, Vol. 141 No. 11 p.132.